If Bo Ryan is frustrated by his team’s struggles this season, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach isn’t admitting it publicly or putting that emotion on display in front of his players.
“What good would it do?” Ryan said last week before his team improved to 8-4 with a 73-52 victory over UW-Milwaukee on Saturday night at the Kohl Center. “We’re adults, so for me to get frustrated doesn’t help guys in shorts and T-shirts.”
One of Ryan’s strengths is how his demeanor and approach to teaching stays the same whether the Badgers are in the midst of a winning streak or a slump. There haven’t been many instances of the latter during Ryan’s coaching career, but the Badgers already have been through a lot this season and Big Ten Conference play hasn’t even begun.
It started with preseason injuries to senior forward Mike Bruesewitz and junior point guard Josh Gasser — the latter is out for the season with a knee injury, a devastating blow to UW on several fronts — and continued with some humbling defeats in the first five weeks of the season.
Losses at Florida and to Creighton in the Las Vegas Invitational were expected — both were experienced teams ranked higher than UW — but a home loss to Virginia on Nov. 28 and a road loss to Marquette on Dec. 8 left Ryan’s players particularly annoyed because they were teams the Badgers felt they should have beat.
But senior forward Jared Berggren was upbeat last week as he assessed where the Badgers are at this late stage of the non-conference portion of their schedule. Part of that optimism, Berggren admitted, stems from being part of Ryan-coached teams that have improved as the season goes on.
“It’s been done before,” Berggren said. “We’re by no means writing ourselves out of it this early in the season. There’s a lot of basketball left to play and coach Ryan has proven that he knows how to get the job done as long as we listen and start applying it on the court a little better and more consistently.”
UW fans don’t have to look back very far to find an example of their team climbing out of what appeared to be a desperate situation. The Badgers opened the 2011-12 Big Ten season with a 1-3 mark before winning their next six games to get back in the league race. UW ended up finishing a game out of a three-way tie for first place and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.
Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard has said on more than one occasion how that was a perfect example of the players simply following their leader. Ryan didn’t hit the panic button, and neither did the Badgers.
“He stays the course,” Gard said. “You don’t panic and go off on a tangent, you continue to teach. You continue to demand people to get better, point out weakness, accentuate strengths. Just because you get a ‘C’ or a ‘D’ on a couple tests, you don’t drop the class.”
UW’s issues on both ends of the court are mostly the product of youth. The Badgers have three freshmen and two sophomores among the top nine players in their rotation, and it hasn’t helped that Bruesewitz hasn’t reached his stride because of a preseason leg injury and missed two games with a concussion.
The good news for UW is they’re in the midst of a five-game stretch of winnable games. They’ve already won the first two games in that span — beating UW-Green Bay and UW-Milwaukee — and close the non-conference season with a game against Samford on Saturday afternoon at the Kohl Center.
UW opens Big Ten play with games against Penn State and Nebraska, the teams picked to finish at the bottom of the league.
The best-case scenario for the Badgers is that their young players — particularly sophomore Traevon Jackson and redshirt freshman George Marshall, who are splitting time at point guard — come of age by the time UW begins a brutal 11-game stretch in Big Ten play that includes nine games against teams that are currently ranked. It includes two games apiece against Ohio State, Illinois and Minnesota, and one game each against Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State.
The other two games during that stretch are against Iowa, which beat UW twice last season.
“The league is so good that improvement still has to be made,” Ryan said after the victory over UW-Milwaukee. “But I sure like the way they’ve hung in there. They’re not hanging their heads, they’re not feeling bad for themselves — because nobody else is. There’s a lot more basketball to play.”